If you had to choose one thing to be the star object in the Museum of your Life what would it be?
I was wondering this when I was kneeling on the attic floor not long ago, going through boxes of old family stuff which I had stored under the bed. Did I mention that I inherited from the grandmother who brought me up a collection of family stories – dark and often tragic stories about my forebears – stories of love and death that have repeated themselves down the generations. Now I was going through boxes of family stuff – letters, scarves, old pairs of shoes, diaries – and remembering Gran’s stories and experiencing that old magic that underlies all museum-making, the thing that I had been doing for years in my day job, seeing how things and their meanings connect.
Museums don’t need to be about valuable things. They are ways of making sense of the world and they are also sometimes autobiographical. We are all potential museum-makers. When you lay out your family stuff on a table top or the bottom of a drawer (and if you don’t have stuff memories work in the same way) – and when you then tell stories to yourself about those things – you are in effect making a museum: The Museum of You.
We each make museums in our heads about our pasts but if you want to make an actual museum then any old box will do. (I have heard of museums in upturned hats or telephone boxes.) When I tried it I used one of the old metal trunks that had come down through the family. It has a curved lid and its inside is painted an intense and beautiful green. The label tells me that it belonged to the Rev. Geo. Jepson (who, I later discovered, had lived in the first half of the 19th century). This trunk stands for all the journeys my family took – the times they ran away, usually towards love though sometimes away from it,, the sea journeys, the earthquakes, the asylums, and the things that they took with them – books and scarves and hopes and dreams.
In this trunk I laid out all the objects that I had found under the bed, put words into their mouths (if you know what I mean), and told the big story (as Gran told it to me) as a Level 1 text (that’s the introductory text).
And then I sat back and pondered what would be the star object in the Museum of My Family? I ponder a lot of different options (poems, book marks, knitting needles) but finally settle on a small ring that belonged to my great, great grandfather, the Free Lover, who had defiantly slept with exactly whom he wanted whenever he wanted, and was – said Gran – the cause of all our troubles. This ring was given to him when he was a teenager when he played the violin to a little boy who was the Prince of Denmark in the mid 19th century. So picture the small, earnest prince and the skinny teenager with the lock of hair that falls across his face, the violin in his hand and him bowing it higher and higher. This was when he was young and hopeful, before he became the Free Lover, and – in family mythology – the cause of all the trouble.
My book ‘The Museum Makers’ is published by September Publishing on August 27th 2020.
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